It is nearly impossible to predict where mass shootings will occur, and even cobbling together consistent risk factors has proved challenging. Even after Stephen Markowiak, a physician at the University of Toledo who recently published a study on the subject, dove into mass shooting data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Census, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, he essentially came up empty.
“It’s tough to take data that we’re looking back at and draw the conclusion that we’re going to be able to predict these things,” Markowiak told Fatherly.
After presenting his findings at the American College of Surgeons, Markowiak turned his raw data over to Fatherly. In our own attempts to use this data to rank the counties at greatest risk for a mass shooting, we experienced the impossibility of this task, firsthand.
Markowiak did manage to rule out gun legislation as a predictor of mass shootings and instead focused on mental health needs. He identified two reliable mental health risk factors — the number of mentally unhealthy days per month, and the ratio of citizens to mental health providers. “We’re looking at both supply and demand,” he explained. And then he tallied up the average number of social associations, per capita. “That would be talking to your neighbors, family, friends, coworkers,” Markowiak notes. Indeed, counties with high demand and low supply of mental health providers and fewer social interactions were more likely to have already experienced at least one mass shooting.
But even these three risk factors do not tell a compelling story or provide any real predictive power. Because, among the 2,404 counties in the study that have not experienced a mass shooting, there is no clear overlap. For instance, the state of West Virginia appears to be at particularly high-risk when it comes to average mentally unhealthy days per month, but barely registers across the other two risk factors. Similarly, Utah suffers some of the lowest numbers of social associations in the country but isn’t even a blip on the radar across the other two risk factors. There are no clear trends.
To be fair, Markowiak and colleagues understand the limitations of the raw data and did not set out to predict where the next mass shooting might occur, in the first place. “We want to start a conversation about this in a safe way and for people to just agree that this is a problem that can be studied and we can find facts to agree on,” he says.
“We might see some new talking points going forward.”